Washington — An indigent person facing criminal charges and a possible jail term has an absolute right to a state-supplied lawyer, but a parent facing loss of parental rights does not.
So ruled a sharply divided US Supreme Court this week in a case that could have wide-reaching impact on poor families and domestic law. Writing for the 5 -to-4 majority on June 1, Justice Potter Stewart said that an indigent "has a right to appointed counsel only when, if he loses, he may be deprived of his physical liberty."
At issue was the case of Abby Gail Lassiter, a North Carolina mother of five who lost all rights to her youngest child, William, after a court found that the action was "in the best interests of the minor."
A state court first took custody away from the mother in 1975 after hearing evidence that she had not provided her infant proper medical care. A year later Ms. Lassiter was convicted of a second-degree murder charge and put in prison, where she was later told that North Carolina was seeking to terminate her parental rights.
During the trial the mother had no lawyer, but she urged the court to keep the child with his grandmother. "Children know they family," she told the trial judge. The judge found little evidence of genuine parental interest or planning for the child and ruled that her parental rights were terminated, an act that effectively removes all legal ties between the mother and child.
Later, Ms. Lassiter filed suit, charging that she had been denied her right to counsel.
In the majority ruling, Justice Stewart conceded that parents in such cases "are likely to be people with little education, who have had uncommon difficulty in dealing with life, and who are, at the hearing, thrust into a distressing and disorienting situation." However, he found that the Lassiter case presented "no specially troublesome points of law" that would require her to have counsel.
It may be wise policy to guarantee parents an attorney, said the high court, but each trial court should decide on a case-by-case basis whether to grant that right.
Justice Harry A. Blackmun spoke for three of the dissenters in charging the Supreme Court with taking a major retreat from its landmark decision (Gideon v. Wainwright) in 1963 when it gave a blanket guarantee to counsel to all accused criminals.
"Surely there can be few losses more grievous than the abrogation of parental rights," said Blackmun, who was joined by Justices William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.
"by intimidation, inarticulateness, or confusion, a parent can lose forever all contact and involvement with his or her offspring," wrote Blackmun. He called the ruling a "sharp departure" from past decisions on due process rights.
In other action this week the Supreme Court:
* Threw out, by a 7-to-2 vote, a local ordinance in the suburban community of Mount Emphraim, N.J., which forbade all live commercial entertainment. The community had attempted to bar an adult bookstore from presenting nude dance shows. The ordinance was proclaimed too broad and thus violative of freedom of expression rights under the First Amendment.
Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, on the dissenting side, wrote: "Because I believe that a community of people are -- within limits -- masters of their own environment, I would hold that, as applied, the ordinance is valid."
* Strengthened the hand of groups who bring "class action" suits. In a case involving the Gulf Oil Corporation, a group of women and blacks had charged the employer with job discrimination. A lower federal court in Texas ordered the group bringing the charge not to communicate with other possible "class" members.
Ruling unanimously, the high court said that the gag order was prohibited under the First A mendment.